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Three Things to Know: Warning about Lakers’ future arrives in the form of Luka Doncic

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LOS ANGELES — Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Warning about Lakers’ tough road ahead arrives in the form of Luka Doncic. Dallas entered Sunday with the best offense in the NBA — not just this season, but in NBA history. The Mavericks had an offensive rating of 116.1 (which would best even the recent Warriors offenses, if Dallas can sustain it).

LeBron James seemed to take that as a personal affront.

He has picked his spots on defense in recent seasons, and those spots were never 20 games into the season. Sunday was going to be his spot — he was active, physical, all over the court and disrupting Luka Doncic at every turn. He had three early steals and got into the body of Kristaps Porzingis to force one of them.

However, the Lakers couldn’t sustain it — and that spotty effort has been a thing the past week plus. While Los Angeles had won 10 in a row, they had faced a softer schedule of late and that allowed them to get away with flipping the switch. Los Angeles trailed Memphis by 15 and New Orleans by 16 recently but were able to come back against those overmatched teams.

The Lakers could not do that against Luka Doncic and the Mavericks.

“We’ve dug ourselves into a couple of holes the past week or so,” guard Danny Green said. “Eventually, it’ll catch up to us. It did.”

By halftime, the Mavericks bench had changed the tone of the game — and the Lakers were struggling enough for LeBron to call a huddle on the court to cuss at his teammates.

This time there would be no L.A. comeback and the reason was Doncic — 16 points, four rebounds, and five assists in the third quarter alone. Dallas made an adjustment that worked beautifully: When the Lakers blitzed Doncic off the pick-and-roll he quickly gave up the ball but then got it right back and attacked again before the defense could reset. Give the young star that kind of space and he will carve a team up.

In the third, the Lakers made a run to get the lead down to 10, but then Doncic found a cutting Delon Wright for a layup, drained a three, hit another layup when Doncic himself drove the lane, and by that point the lead was 17 again. Doncic was feeling it, and it showed with a step-back three over his idol LeBron in the fourth.

The Lakers are 17-3 this season, but the thing is they are 14-0 against teams below .500 when they faced them and 3-3 against everyone else (beating the bad teams is a sign of a good one, the dynasty Spurs were the kings of that). December is filled with a lot of everyone else — the Lakers have the toughest schedule in the league in December. That starts with a Denver/Utah road back-to-back Tuesday and Wednesday, kicking off 8-of-9 away from Staples Center.

The Lakers have been able to get away with some stretches of sloppy play the past few weeks because of their talent level and how much better that was than everyone they faced. When LeBron is playing at an MVP level — which he absolutely is — he can overwhelm weaker and even average teams. The good teams, like Dallas, can weather the storm and make a comeback. The Lakers have to be sharper, have to clean up their play on both ends, get back to playing at an elite level, or it’s going to be a long, cold December.

2) Concern about Marcus Smart injury overshadows another Boston win. Jayson Tatum scored 30 points and Boston did what good teams do on Sunday: They found a way to win on a day they weren’t as sharp as normal, rallying to beat the Knicks. Jaylen Brown added 28 in a win that improves the Celtics to 14-5 and keeps them as the three seed in the East.

That’s not the big story out of this game.

Marcus Smart went down with an oblique injury after a collision with Kevin Knox. Smart left the game not to return, but the real concern is this is the same injury — and Smart said the same spot — that caused him to miss about a month last season.

The Celtics have the sixth-best defense in the NBA this season and Smart is at the heart of that. He has been tenacious on that end, in a way that has to get him Defensive Player of the Year votes (although it’s too early to have that discussion just 20 games into the season). Smart has refused to take time off to heal a variety of smaller injuries this season, something that just comes with his all-out style of play, so a couple of games missed that gives his body time to get right is not the end of the world. However, Boston will miss him a lot if he has to miss any extended time. We should learn more on Monday.

3) Toronto is the best team you’re not watching, now with seven wins in a row. It’s considered the statistical sign of a title contender: Having a top-10 offensive and defensive rating. As you might expect, the Lakers, Clippers, and Bucks all have that this season.

So do the Toronto Raptors — they actually have a top-five offensive and defensive rating.

While most fans have focused on the drama in Los Angeles or how Giannis Antetokounmpo has taken a step forward this season with the Bucks, the Toronto Raptors have quietly looked like a team ready to defend their title. Kawhi Leonard bolted for those bright lights in L.A., but north of the border Pascal Siakam has emerged as a true superstar, Fred VanVleet has stepped up and is scoring 18.6 points a game, Kyle Lowry is still the heart of the team and Marc Gasol is making plays on defense. The Raptors are a legit threat.

Just ask the Utah Jazz — Toronto blitzed the feared Utah defense for 77 first-half points (that was with Rudy Gobert back in the lineup) and led by a franchise-record 40 at the half. From there, the Raptors cruised to a 130-110 win, their seventh in a row to improve to 15-4 on the season. Siakam led the way with 35 points.

Toronto has been one of the great stories of the NBA season, and one not getting enough attention. The Raptors’ ability to develop players — like Siakam and VanVleet, and now rookie Terrence Davis — has not just kept them afloat this season but turned them into a genuine threat to the powers of the East.

Toronto is not going to just celebrate their title and quietly fade away this season. This is an outstanding team that is set on defending its crown. The league underestimated them, but no longer. The Toronto Raptors are turning heads. And winning games. A lot of games.

Embiid scores career-high 49, 76ers beat Hawks 129-112

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PHILADELPHIAJoel Embiid scored a career-high 49 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, Tobias Harris had 25 points and the Philadelphia 76ers beat the Atlanta Hawks 129-112 on Monday night.

Missing All-Star Ben Simmons for the second time in three games because of a back injury, the Sixers mixed up their starting lineup and got 15 points from Furkan Korkmaz in a reserve role.

Trae Young led Atlanta with 28 points despite missing nine of 11 from 3-point range. De'Andre Hunter added 22 and John Collins had 21 for the Hawks.

After trailing by 21 in the first half, the Hawks outscored Philadelphia 23-9 to start the third quarter. They closed out the period with an 8-0 run and took a 92-91 lead into the fourth after Young nailed a 3.

The Sixers went up to stay on four consecutive free throws by Embiid. Harris sank a 3-pointer to extend the lead to 105-98.

Embiid’s dunk and 19-footer put Philadelphia up by 15 with 3:08 left, and the All-Star center heard “MVP!” chants when he went to the foul line in the final minutes. Embiid made 14 of 15 free throws and 17 of 24 from the floor. He hit a 3 in the final minute to set his personal best. His previous high was 46 against the Lakers on Nov. 15, 2017.

Simmons only played five minutes in a loss at Milwaukee on Saturday before exiting. He had tests on Sunday and needs further evaluation.

Coach Brett Brown wouldn’t speculate on the extent of the injury or how long Simmons will be sidelined. But it appears the team is preparing to play without him for a while.

TIP-INS

Hawks: The loss snapped a two-game winning streak. The Hawks haven’t won three in a row all season. … Young, who entered averaging 30.0 points per game, only had 10 in the first half. Young had 39 points and 18 assists in a 127-117 victory over the 76ers at home on Jan. 30. … Coach Lloyd Pierce was an assistant for five seasons under Brown in Philadelphia before going to Atlanta last year.

76ers: Al Horford was back in the starting lineup after coming off the bench the last three games The 6-foot-9. Horford had started 835 straight games since his rookie season in 2007 before Brown took him out of the starting lineup on Feb. 11. … Shake Milton started at point guard for Simmons. Shooting guard Josh Richardson also played the point.

UP NEXT

Hawks: Host Orlando on Wednesday to begin a stretch of seven of nine games at home.

76ers: Visit Cleveland on Wednesday seeking to sweep the four-game season series.

Moments we will never forget from Kobe Bryant’s memorial

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LOS ANGELES — “This morning was beautiful, it really was. It was emotional… You know what was interesting, if you looked around at all those people, it just brought people together.”

Doc Rivers, who coaches another team in a city he accurately described “brokenhearted,” summed up the feeling around Kobe Bryant’s memorial on Monday at Staples Center perfectly. It was a celebration for a basketball world — and a city in Los Angeles — that needed it.

It was filled with moments we will not forget.

Everything started with a soulful song from Beyoncé.

“I don’t know how Vanessa did it. I didn’t know that was possible,” Rivers said, encapsulating the feelings of everyone who watched Vanessa Bryant eulogize her husband and daughter with grace and beauty. It set the emotional tone for the day and was perfect.

Michael Jordan — the man that helped fuel Kobe and became his friend — spoke from his heart. He also had the funniest line of the day.

It it wasn’t MJ, it was Diana Taurasi who cracked up the crowd.

The same passion we all recognized in Kobe, obviously, Gigi inherited. Her skill was undeniable at an early age. I mean, who has a turn-away fade-away jumper at 11?

LeBron barely got it today.

When the event ended, former players and coaches hung out in Staples Center for more than an hour, just talking and reminiscing. Outside Staples, thousands of fans did the same thing.

Kobe Bryant touched so many lives in positive ways. That, more than anything, is his true legacy. And what was celebrated on Monday.

Report: Former NBA player Jonathon Simmons to sign with G-League

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CNBC’s Jabari Young reports that former NBAer Jonathon Simmons will sign with the G-League:

Simmons last played in the NBA in 2018-19 with the Philadelphia 76ers. The Sixers acquired Simmons from the Orlando Magic are the 2019 trade deadline. Following the season, Simmons was traded again, this time to the Washington Wizards in a deal designed to shed some salary off Philadelphia’s cap sheet.

Simmons is no stranger to working his way to the NBA from the G-League. He once paid a $150 fee to attend an open tryout for players trying to make the then D-League. Simmons made it and was allocated to the Austin Spurs.

After two years in Austin, Simmons was signed to a training camp contract with the San Antonio Spurs. He spent the next two seasons in San Antonio before signing with Orlando as a free agent in 2017. At the 2019 trade deadline, Orlando sent Simmons to Philadelphia, along with a first round pick, for former number one overall pick Markelle Fultz.

Players sign with the G-League itself vs individual teams. They are then allocated to teams through a variety of methods. According to Young, Simmons is expected to ultimately land with the Santa Cruz Warriors. Santa Cruz has a good track record of getting players called up to the NBA, which is probably what attracted Simmons to agree to play for them.

Lakers, DeMarcus Cousins reportedly may talk new contract next summer

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Sunday, the Lakers waived DeMarcus Cousins to clear out a roster space for Markieff Morris. Cousins was signed last July to be the team’s starting center, but he tore his ACL in training and has not stepped on the court this season. It wasn’t personal, it was business, and under the terms of the CBA Cousins can continue his rehab in the Lakers’ practice facilities.

Cousins may be officially gone, but he could return next season to the Lakers, reports Joe Varden at The Athletic.

But the Lakers could re-sign him this summer, something both sides have expressed interest in pursuing, sources said.

This would be another one-year minimum contract deal, and it makes sense for both sides. Dwight Howard is a free agent and, after a resurgent (but not elite) season in Los Angeles, likely will get offers for more than the Lakers can pay him. JaVale McGee has a $4.2 million player option. Whatever McGee decides, the Lakers will be looking for another big man (and maybe two). Cousins could step right in.

What he can offer on the court coming off a torn Achilles and ACL remains to be seen, but the Lakers will not ask a lot of their centers. Cousins is a two-time All-NBA, four-time All-Star player who should still be able to give the Lakers some solid minutes in the paint.

The Lakers will keep their options open, but don’t be surprised if the two sides reunite.